Through about a quarter of the Vikings' regular season, quarterback Kirk Cousins pointed to the inspiring play of special teams and the overall discipline to limit penalties as two key ingredients for the franchise's 3-1 start, its best since 2016. He saw positive signs for how far the Vikings can go should they become more consistent on offense and defense under head coach Kevin O'Connell.
"You start to look at why you're winning or you're getting to 3-1, you start to see some indications like that," Cousins said. "Offensively, I think we've come out of some games — outside of the Packer game — we've come out of some games feeling like we have to be sharper, we have to be better. There's plays we're leaving out there."
Cousins feels strongly about the talent around him to get there. That didn't look like a guarantee 10 months ago when the Vikings fired their general manager and head coach. The Bears, Sunday's opponent at U.S. Bank Stadium, did the same, but the teams chose drastically different paths to reset.
The Bears hired Vikings candidate and former Chiefs assistant Ryan Poles as GM and began a teardown of the roster around second-year quarterback Justin Fields. The Vikings hired Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and, with co-owner Mark Wilf's edict to be "super competitive," brought back the same core. Many of the same faces greeted Cousins in the locker room this spring.
"It's not a good feeling when you start OTAs and you're looking around the locker room and you're concerned about pieces, and you're concerned about 'What are we going to do at this position?' or 'What's our answer here?'," Cousins said in April.
"To be in the locker room and just feel really good about the group and really good about the experience we have and the type of players we have and people, that's a great feeling, especially at the quarterback position."
The Vikings returned 80% of the snaps on offense, introducing only one new starter in right guard Ed Ingram, and 58% of the snaps on defense, where over $30 million was guaranteed to sign edge rusher Za'Darius Smith, nose tackle Harrison Phillips and linebacker Jordan Hicks.
The Bears' massive roster overhaul saw All-Pro edge rusher Khalil Mack traded to the Chargers and veteran receiver Allen Robinson and defensive tackles Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman let go. Poles kept just 54% of the snaps on defense and offense in Chicago, where the biggest expenditure for outside help was $6 million per season for 26-year-old defensive tackle Justin Jones.
Yet the Bears come to Minnesota with more than moral victories at 2-2, a steady start under first-year head coach Matt Eberflus, the ex-Colts defensive coordinator. Two fourth-quarter touchdowns gave the Bears a win against the 49ers in a rainstorm, and a 30-yard field goal lifted them over the Texans in the closing seconds. Two potentially galvanizing wins, said O'Connell, whose Vikings have also eked out close wins against the Lions and Saints.
"They've had kind of some emotional victories here and team-building-type wins like we kind of have," O'Connell said. "You feel a lot of similarities as far as it's early on in the building of the program you're putting together, and these Sundays are so big to go out and learn a lot about your team but continue to try to improve. I've always had so much respect for [Eberflus] as a defensive coach in this league but also as a leader, a leader of men and certainly his team looks like they're headed in the right direction."
While the Bears offense is a relic — Fields' 34 completions are the fewest by an NFL quarterback to start a season in the past 40 years — Eberflus has the defense playing well with two key veterans, linebacker Roquan Smith and safety Eddie Jackson. They've allowed more than 20 points just once so far — 27 to Aaron Rodgers' Packers.
"Every year, [analysts] make these predictions about teams," Eberflus said last month. "This team is going to be this, and this team is going to be that. And at the end, you look at that particular team and what they said and it's always wrong."
O'Connell is seeking a complete effort on offense and defense from the Vikings for the first time since the 24-7 season-opening win against the Packers. Expectations remain high even as players and coaches continue to adjust to new playbooks.
"You have to turn over every stone as best as you can no matter how little time we've had on the task," Cousins said. "There's no excuse. Now, that being said, after 40 games are you going to be at a different level of this offense? Yes, you will."